During one of the latest television debates the Minister of Foreign Affairs Audronius Ažubalis pointed out that national minorities do not have to be foreign policy’s hostages. He explained that accusations of violating the rights of Polish minority in Lithuania do not need to be heeded, as, in his opinion, they are unfounded. He quotes this year’s Freedom House report, which states clearly that rights of Polish minority in Lithuania are protected. The European Foundation for Human Rights opposes misinforming the Lithuanian and international public. It encourages people to see the Freedom House report of 2012, available at Freedom House’s website, here: http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2012/lithuania

Already in the introduction, the report negatively describes the new education law, adopted in 2011, which forces the students who will take their final high school exams (matura exams) in 2013 to pass exactly the same Lithuanian language tests as their fellow students in Lithuanian schools. The report emphasizes that the new law caused massive protests of national minorities in Lithuania. It says that every fourth member of a minority group (16% of all people) experiences discrimination at work.

Additionally the report emphasizes the discrimination of the Roma people, stating that they are the most discriminated group in Lithuania. According to the report, they have the worst access to social welfare service, job market, and worst relations with the police. Government’s programme, aiming at integrating the Rome people with Lithuanian society (2008-2010) correctly identified their needs regarding education and job market, but it missed some solutions of social problems, like housing and health care. What is more, despite the plan to dedicate 1 million litas a year for this program, in the end a million was spent in three years.

On 10 November 1998 Lithuania joined an International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). However, the country did not accept the article 14 (parts of the Convention are not obligatory), so it does not give the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination the right to consider complaints of those who fall within its jurisdiction and consider themselves victims of violating their laws stated in the convention.

At present Lithuania has no special law, protecting particular rights of national minorities. Thus, it is the only state that ratified the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (with no reservations, in 2000) and removed the bills on national minorities. Therefore, from 2010, laws protecting the fragile group do not exist. Since the removal, many administrative and legal actions against members of minority groups have been taken and many fines were imposed. Hateful opinions, persecution, prejudice, stereotypes and negative image of minorities- unfortunately it all became common in Lithuanian media, along with readers’ comments and aggressive behaviour. Few legal proceedings against ethnic and racial discrimination are known, and the sentences were ridiculously lenient, disproportionate in relation to offenses. Many racial attacks remained unconsidered, or seen as regular mugging. The offenders were not prosecuted.

In February 2011 the Human Rights Monitoring Institute in Vilnius (HRMI) in its Alterative Report created on the basis of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and Lithuanian Fourth and Fifth Periodic Reports emphasized that “Lithuania is characterised by little knowledge on human rights among executives, state officials, in judiciary system, media and society in general. The state must develop efficient institutional and legal framework to protect human rights in Lithuania.” The European Foundation for Human Rights in similar report from March 2011 states that it identifies with the arguments and statements from the Alternative Report by HRMI. In a report on human rights in Lithuania, written by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour (8 April 2011) it is stated that “discrimination of ethnic minorities in Lithuania still exists” and that “intolerance and social discrimination towards ethnic and national minorities does not disappear”. It is also emphasized that “anti-Semitic and racist comments in the Internet remain common.”

It is worth citing the opinion of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities’ Advisory Committee on Lithuania, published in 2011. It says that there are still problems with applying the Convention in Lithuania, particularly the parts that guarantee the minorities’ linguistic rights in social life. Uncertainty still remains when it comes to the contradictory content of the bill of minorities’ rights (the report was written when the bill was still valid, so how critical the next report will be, when the bill is invalid?) and the bill on official language.

If, as Minister Audronius Ažubalis claims “minorities rights in Lithuania are protected”, then why the High Commissioner for national minorities’ rights in Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Knut Vollebek and his colleagues have been monitoring the situation in Lithuania and they keep issuing recommendations on changing the law?

The European Foundation for Human Rights believes that Lithuania should, as far as possible, adopt a law protecting minorities’ rights and fully introduce the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, to join the civilised countries that take care to protect the rights of those most exposed to discrimination. Democracy can be recognised by how the majority treats minorities, not the other way around.

The European Foundation for Human Rights

Translated by Emilia Zawieracz within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.